By Khalil Khani*
The air quality in metropolitan Tehran and some other major cities across Iran has gradually become unbreathable in the past decades, and in recent years, the pollution index has reached dangerously high levels for elders and others with respiratory illnesses. The Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures levels of air contamination, has seen an alarming upturn in the capital in recent weeks, crossing the threshold of 200 or more, deemed “heavily polluted.”
There are various pollutants in Iran’s air. The most commonly measured are: particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and ozone (O3). Particulate matter (PM) is defined as fine inhalable particles that are suspended in the air, regardless of the size of the particle. The two most common size fractions of PM measures are PM10 and PM2.5. PM10, also referred to as “coarse PM,” particles of 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller; PM2.5, also referred to as “fine PM” are a subset of those particles, namely those that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. Sources of PM10 include crushing or grinding operations, dust stirred up by vehicles, and roads. PM2.5, on the other hand, originates from all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes. PM2.5 poses the most severe health impacts out of all measurable particle sizes because the fine particles can get deep into the alveolar region of the lungs and even into the bloodstream.
Tehran, Iran’s capital city is an academic, cultural, and bustling financial hub surrounded by the majestic Alborz Mountains. It presents an unpleasant and challenging situation to urban planners, government agencies, and environmentalists.
A thick layer of smog enveloping the city remains trapped for winter months due to the phenomenon called “temperature inversion,” and degradation of natural ecosystems, long spells of droughts, and climate change make it only worse.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had in 2018 categorized Tehran as the “most polluted city in the world”, while the World Bank in its 2018 report said the city accounts for 4,000 of the 12,000 deaths due to air pollution in Iran annually. These fatalities are due to cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and strokes. However, the data is disputed and some have put the deaths at 30,000 or even more.
The situation has become even worse this year, according to government officials and environmentalists, with the AQI reaching a record high not only in Tehran but also in other major cities such as Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Zabol, and Mashhad.
There are no accurate figures available to show the impact of polluted air, but experts say deaths due to ailments caused by air pollution are likely to be higher this year than in previous years.
Amid the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, rising pollution levels present a bigger challenge for government agencies and healthcare professionals with a surge in hospitalizations and fatalities.
According to recent reports published by the Tehran Air Quality Control Company, the inhabitants of Tehran inhaled more contaminated air in the past few months than during the same period last year.
Throughout the month of December, the AQI remained in the ‘red zone’ (151-200), meaning “unhealthy.” On some days, the index even breached the 300 mark, deemed “hazardous.”
The main pollutant sources, environmental experts say, include mobile sources like vehicular traffic, especially outdated bus fleets, and other heavy engines, which are consumers of heavy diesel fuel, stationary sources of refineries, power plants, and manufacturing industries.
Former Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said a few months ago that a shortage of fuel had forced power plants to use refined diesel and mazut, a low-quality fuel oil.
Environmental experts are urging officials, saying: the authorities need to “seriously implement measures” including restrictions on private vehicles and consumption of substandard fuel oíl because it is an emergency considering all environmental standards. It’s a problem that recurs every year, and this year, the situation has turned extremely worrisome.
A city with a population of 9,259,000 people, Tehran becomes even busier and more crowded during the daytime, with people from nearby cities and counties flocking for work.
As noted in the 2018 World Bank study, rapid population growth due to constant migration, burgeoning industrialization and high traffic add to the pollution woes of Iran’s capital.
In order to confront the air pollution problems, the clerical regime must implement existing scientific methods to decrease the effects of pollutants, impose stringent traffic rules and partial lockdown as some of the options to resolve the problem. At the same time, official sources are pointing to the lack of coordination between different agencies of the government as a barrier in the way of implementing policy decisions.
Last year, Iran’s Air Pollution Emergency Committee had proposed a complete two-day closure in Tehran, a move that was reportedly opposed by top government agencies.
Also, enforcement of the 2017 Clean Air Law has also faced impediments due to a lack of coordination between implementing agencies like the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Petroleum, Ministry of Energy, and the Tehran Municipality. According to this law, existing pollution indicators in the country fall in the category of an emergency situation which calls for an emergency response from all concerned agencies.
Besides the health costs, pollution also incurs a heavy economic loss. Tehran’s pollution led to an annual loss of $2.6 billion in 2018, accounting for a $7 million loss daily.
While relevant authorities and environmentalists have sounded alarms, there appears to be a mix of indecision and indifference from the government to implement actions or measures. The only action one might see is the announcement of Iran’s Health Ministry officials in the strictly state-controlled media, urging high-risk groups with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions or the elderly and children to refrain from moving outdoors.
Due to persistent unhealthy air, there have been reports of increased hospitalizations in recent weeks in Tehran, Karaj, Qazvin, Isfahan, and other cities, mainly with complaints related to respiratory and cardiac conditions.
But who is the main polluter of Iran’s air? The ruling clerics, the IRGC, various religious foundations, and the government are the stakeholders of refineries, power plants, industries around Tehran, and other metropolises in Iran. They are also the manufacturer of substandard automobiles. They are the ones deciding to burn mazut in power plants instead of natural gas. The private sector is also associated with those in power and is no better than the ruling class. So, Iranians are paying a heavy price for incompetent officials, a medieval government, and a criminal Supreme Leader. Shouldn’t the world stand with them for a free and democratic Iran?
* Khalil Khani is an Environmental Specialist and a Human Rights activist. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology, Botany, and Environmental Studies from Germany and has taught at the University of Tehran and the Hesse State University in Germany. He is also a Doctor of Medical Psychology from the United States.